Eyewear from Vienna

Successful startup stories aren’t only a 21st-century thing. ­Robert La Roche launched his internationally successful eyewear company in the Josefstadt almost 50 years ago.

Despite the French-sounding name, La Roche’s father was actually from Czechia and his mother from Trieste. Today he and his wife, a French composer and pianist, live in the house in Maria-Treu-Gasse where he was born, and his office is in his father’s former surgery.

La Roche looks back on his life with infectious enthusiasm. ‘After taking my degree in economics, I went to the USA. I loved it there, the people were so open and friendly. After two years in a small town in Massachusetts I landed a job with the UN and was able to spend another year in New York.’

‘I then found a job in psychological market research in Hamburg. Two years later I was hired by an advertising agency. Later, I worked as product coordinator in Tokyo for two years.’ Back home he met eyewear pioneer Wilhelm Anger and opened a branch office for him in the USA. When their ways parted, the pay-off was his startup capital.

‘Lunettes Robert La Roche’ was founded in the Josefstadt in 1973. ‘I knew what I wanted but I didn’t have any prototypes. I found a small factory in the Dolomites that worked with acetate, which is fully recyclable or degradable. The owner and I clicked right away, and we started to produce the first collection. The novelty was that we made extremely thin glasses in various colours.’

‘The glasses were an instant success, and it all just went from there. I got to know Andy Warhol and, through him, Calvin Klein, and I ended up designing the Calvin Klein collection for four years.’ La Roche sounds as if he still can’t quite believe his luck. ‘I didn’t contact Hollywood stylists to be featured in movies – the actors just wore my glasses when they came on set.’

Glasses have not lost their magic for him. ‘Glasses are something special. A medical product that has turned into a fashion item.’ After many successful years, it was time for a change. ‘Routine had set in and the enthusiasm had worn off. In 1999, I sold the brand but kept my large archive and stock of glasses.’ As befits a (former) startup, all those frames from 1973 to 1999 are stored in carefully labelled cardboard boxes in a backyard garage. And thanks to the vintage trend, original La Roche glasses can once again be found in specialist shops in and around the Josefstadt.

issue 04/2020